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Farewell Toni Yancey, A Most Valuable Colleague

I learned of Toni Yancey’s death today. Though I knew the end of her extraordinary life was coming, it was a painful blow. I immediately felt the world deprived of her uncommon passion, enthusiasm, optimism, confidence, altruism, intelligence, and collegiality, all directed towards helping the most vulnerable people have healthier and more active lives. I so valued Toni as a colleague and friend that I want to share my memories and impressions.

I often called us “co-conspirators” because of our shared commitment to improving physical activity’s priority in public health. Though we were an “odd couple” in many ways, I felt a special kinship with Toni, as many people did. Our strongest connection was our shared mission to raise the priority of physical activity in the public health field. Both of us are appalled at the lack of commitment to increasing a behavior that could bring more physical and mental health benefits to people of all ages than anything else we know. While Toni was the guest editor of a 2009 theme issue on physical activity of Preventive Medicine, I was honored to work with her behind the scenes on this project. Moving this agenda forward would be a high tribute to Toni’s life work.

It has been heartbreaking watching Toni cope with her devastating illness that seemed to come out of nowhere. Lung cancer is usually a death sentence, but I and Toni’s legions of friends and fans hoped her outcome would be different. She fought hard, and she had lots of support, but she could not win this one.

I feel fortunate that I spent an afternoon with Toni March 31. Though she was in the final stages of her cancer and was on constant pain medication, her eyes were bright and her mind was active as ever. Her body was ravaged, but her spirit was powerful. She showed me some of the art pieces around her house that showed diverse interests and good taste. She was kind enough to share several facets of her vibrant personality. We paged through a book of photos from her modeling career, which was amazing in the variety of looks and moods. Though she did not talk about her basketball career, she was watching the college championships when I arrived. I read through some of her poems, which fully reflected the many themes of her life, a confidence that does not always accompany people from humble roots like hers, and comfort with her place in the world. I loved the poem that talked about her feeling at home around leading physicians and scientists, national leaders, and European royalty. She was every bit their equal.

I left inspired by her drive to use her remaining time and energy for the highest purposes. I was reminded that Toni always had a clear vision and was not afraid to take on the most difficult challenges. Two examples are most vivid. When I learned a few months earlier that she had won a huge $20 million grant from CDC to disseminate Instant Recess, it was bittersweet news. Though it was a fitting recognition of her years of systematic building of evidence, it was sad to me, and it must have been frustrating to her, that she would not see the project through. I asked her about what happened to the project and was stunned to learn that she had already set up six regional centers to carry out the grant. She had devoted her remaining energy to ensuring the project would live. The second example was that she showed me the final proofs for a book of her poetry, illustrated by art she had collected. Her poetry really is a summary of her passions, views of the world, and defining experiences. To create a book like this as one of her last acts is a beautiful exclamation point on a remarkable life. To see all that she accomplished when it was hard for her to even breathe makes me miss her spirit even more.

My last observation is about the exquisitely attentive care Toni was given by her partner Darlene. It was touching for me to observe Darlene making sure Toni’s regimens were faithfully carried out. Darlene noticed a disruption in Toni’s breathing that I did not hear and called the palliative care nurse for a consult. The nurse came for a home visit. Although Toni’s life was cruelly cut too short, she lived her last days with the highest possible quality and meaning, connected with caring family, devoted friends, and adoring colleagues.

I miss you, but I am inspired to carry on your work.

Please see more postings about Toni on the Active Living Research website.

Jim Sallis

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